Sunday, March 8, 2009

...ditching the squalor

I currently live in Baltimore, a mere block from Inner Harbor. Amidst the amazing history of the area, the culture of the inhabitants and the views of a city built near the water, there lays a darker side. The Chesapeake Bay is in a truly sad state. One does not need to do anything beyond peer into the turbid waters surrounding downtown to see nothing but trash and black, polluted water to realize that there is an epic problem.

I spent some time on a research vessel with the National Aquarium over the summer taking salinity, turbidity, bottom samples and disolved oxygen readings throughout the Harbor area. What we found was depressing. We used a dredge to sample the bottom of the bay in about 10 different locations. At every single location the 'bottom grab' yielded nothing but a foul-smelling black sludge comprised of sediment, particulate run-off and decaying organic matter. Not one sign of life. Each grab also yielded bits of trash, it never failed. On one of the days, our dissolved oxygen readings in all 10 locations were not high enough to support life. They were barely viable on the other days. Visibility in the harbor area is limited to inches. A few times a year, algea blooms from the phosphate and nitrogen runoff surging into the bay each time it rains are responsible for massive fish kills in the downtown area. Also, Mahogany Tides surge throughout the upper bay on a regular basis. This is when the water turns a bright brown color due to another type of algea bloom. The Striped Bass, or rockfish as they are called here, is one of the only species that has recieved a passing grade in the past two years. However, there are none to be found in the harbor area. The famous Maryland Blue Crab is in dire straights with severe moratoriums on harvesting. Oysters, the keystone of the ecosystem for their filtering ability, are essentially gone.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Save the Bay have numerous programs aimed at tackling this issue. In my science classroom we have grown and planted approximately 10sq ft of submerged aquatic vegetation in the past two years, to act as a run-off fence and protect the precious oysters from sediment pollution. The annual Chesapeake Bay report card has shown that oysters are at less than 1% of historic levels and everything from submerged vegetation to plankton has received failing grades.

In spite of all of this, in the Baltimore area there is at least one freshwater fly fishing location that can truly take your breath away and redeem a spirit beat down by the state of the Bay. It is a section of the Gunpowder River, directly below Pretty Boy Reservoir. Recent electroshocking has yielded estimates of more than 4900 naturalized brown trout per mile in this section. Fingerling 'bows are stocked each year but it appears most are devoured by the resident brown population. There are also a precious few Kamloops rainbows in there that can get massive. The fish are naturally reproducing, healthy and plentiful.

The river itself is magnificent. As a tailwater is flows flat for about 3\4 of a mile before entering a section, about another 1 mile long, filled with deep plunge pools, boulders, waterfalls, riffles and smart-as-hell brown trout. Herons, beavers, muskrat, epic hatches and fellow fishermen can be observed on any given day.

As I arrived there on Saturday for my first trip this year I was hopeful. I had had luck there in the past and the browns were gorgeous. I fished in the 70degree weather for about 3 hours with no luck, however, before I tied on a size 22 RS2. On my first cast, a 7 inch brown took it from a deep, dark plunge pool. I had a toothy grin as I brought the fish to hand. Crouching down to take out the barbless hook I was mesmerized at the coloration on this tiny fish. It appeared like a vein of gold mined from the black granite boulder I was huddled over. I stared for a few seconds, then gently released the fish.

Although she was the only one I landed that day, seeing a healthy, vibrant trout in as wild a setting as the Gunpowder, surrounded by murmuring whitewater and all of the potentials left un-mined from this particular pool, I forgot for a second that I was a short drive from a smoldering metropolis mired in an uphill battle to save the ecosystem and waterway it has been built upon.

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